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Reformed Theology 101

Cynthia Rigby, ‘one of the great theologians of our time,’ lays out Reformed beliefs during an hour-long webinar

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Rigby

LOUISVILLE — The mystery of the Reformed faith is not that God is unknowable — it’s that the unknowable God, from the Reformed perspective, has made God’s Self known.

In an hour-long webinar created last week, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Rigby, the W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, lays out that assertion along with other basic tenents of Reformed theology. The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Christian Formation and the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators put on the free webinar; a recording is available here.

During the webinar, Rigby, called by the Dallas Morning News “one of the great theologians of our time,” discussed six basic teachings of Reformed theology.

The sovereignty of God

Not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Without God’s sovereignty, the reformer John Calvin said, life would be unbearable.

“It’s not that God causes things to happen,” Rigby said, “but that God is with us even when horrible things happen.”

Still, people of faith can well grow frustrated when problems persist over the years.

“Why isn’t God solving this? We have been praying the Lord’s Prayer for 2,000 years. Show us the money already, O God!” she said.

The sovereignty of God authorizes us to keep hoping, to keep pushing, she said, because “we have something better than a right — we have an identity,” she said, quoting Jacquelyn Grant in “White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus”: “When black women call Jesus Lord, they are saying the slaveholder isn’t.”

The goodness of Creation

We sometimes attach negative attributes to Creation and sex, eating good food and drinking good wine and otherwise enjoying this world, but “nothing could be further from the truth,” Rigby said.

“We believe everything was created good. That’s what makes the Fall more serious,” she said. “The good news built into the fabric of Creation is who we really are.”

The fact that Jesus did not sin makes him more human than we are, not less human. Jesus was tried in every way that we are, and we can hold one another accountable. “We can approach each other and say, ‘Hey Cindy, you aren’t being who God made you. I insist you correct that behavior,’” she said. “We are laying claim to our created goodness.”

The centrality of Christ

Before he was Abraham, Abram believed God, who “reckoned it to him as righteousness,” according to Genesis 15. God’s word is huge and it’s ubiquitous, “even as it was present in Jesus,” Rigby said. “Abram was saved through the same word we know through Jesus Christ,” which has some implications for further interreligious dialogue, Rigby said.

When Rigby gets to heaven and sees her father, she’ll also be glad to greet her Buddhist friend, “because Jesus was able to save him, too.” She labeled Jesus a priest, judge prophet — and, to the poet Emily Dickinson, a “tender pioneer” who bushwhacks through the forest and claims victory over sin and death so we might live an abundant life.

The tenacity of grace

This is difficult to discuss, Rigby said, because there are few human analogies. Grace is unfathomable, but the theologian Barbara Brown Taylor has this story to help explain what grace is: A Yankee visits a southern diner and orders two eggs over easy with wheat toast and bacon. The plate is served with what is to the Yankee an unknown substance oozing out of every other item ordered. The customer asks about it, and the waitress replies, “Oh honey, those are grits. Grist comes whether you order it or not.”

“Grace is like grits,” Rigby said. “It comes whether you order it or not.”

“We talk about gratitude and response, but we still fall into the pattern of thinking about grace transactionally, and we need work on that,” she said.

Theologian Karl Barth notes that when Jesus says on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” it’s not clear he’s speaking just to the criminal who asks him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Barth says, ‘Aren’t those thieves lucky? They participated in Jesus’ life and death, and they get to participate in his resurrection.’”

The inseparability of word and sacrament

Christians are good at lifting up pairs of things that are simultaneously true, she said: Jesus is fully human and fully divine. We are at the same time righteous and sinners. The Trinity is one in three, three in one.

At the Synod of Alexandria in 362 CE, participants were warring about the Trinity. In the end, leaders told both sides they were right, “and people were mad about that, because they wanted a better answer,” Rigby said. “The oneness of God and the three-ness of God are not in tension.”

The PC9USA)’s Directory for Worship says word and sacrament are inextricably intertwined. Rigby pointed to a New Testament miracle as proof: Jesus lectured the 5,000, and then he fed them. “The bigger miracle,” she said, “was this important man stopped talking long enough to serve lunch.”

The transforming work of the Holy Spirit

Reformed theologians get a “bum rap,” she said, for not caring enough about the work of the Holy Spirit. For Calvin, “the Holy Spirit sealed the deal on the truth of who Jesus Christ is and God’s benevolence,” Rigby said. “Without the Holy Spirit, we can know nothing.”

For Calvin, part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to help people know they are God’s Elect “so that they can live the abundant life God wants them to live,” she said. “Calvin said to treat everyone as though they are the Elect. That’s up to God, not us.”

The forgiveness of sins “is not only a possibility, but a requirement of Reformed theology, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that,” Rigby said. “If we could model forgiveness better, it could make a real difference in the world.”

And as we go out into that world, “remember we are part of the Reformed tradition,” Rigby said as a benediction to close the webinar. “To whom much is given, much will be required. We are all in it together as a community of faith.”

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